Joey Logano plays the waiting game

Joey Logano was deep into conversation with New England Patriots lineman Nick McDonald about which was worse, getting hit by another car on the track or another player on a football field, when the conversation turned to free agency.

"So where are you going to drive next year?" McDonald asked last month during a prerace chat with the Joe Gibbs Racing driver at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

"I don't know yet," Logano responded.

McDonald went on to tell Logano about free agency in the NFL, how there is a period usually between March and June when players are allowed to negotiate with other teams, how they're left alone during the season unless it's to negotiate an extension with their existing team.

Or they can be cut like McDonald was by the Green Bay Packers late last summer.

Logano smiled.

"We start way too early," he said.

Unlike in many sports, free agency is a yearlong proposition in NASCAR. Sometimes a driver will sign with another organization more than a year before the seat is open. Occasionally, the driver will negotiate -- or at least talk -- with a prospective new team hours before climbing in the car to compete.

It's not an ideal world, but it does say something for the unbelievable focus of drivers who are able to put negotiations aside for three or four hours to compete at the highest level.

Roush Fenway Racing driver Matt Kenseth took over the points lead in early June in the middle of negotiations with another team. Multiple sources have indicated that team is Joe Gibbs Racing.

Logano has been dealing for several months with losing his ride and sponsors to Kenseth in 2013 -- according to sources -- and must find a new sponsor if he wants to stay at JGR, or go to another team.

During that time Logano won at Pocono to end a 104-race losing streak and put himself in the middle of the wild-card race for the Chase.

Imagine what it would have been like for Peyton Manning had he been negotiating a deal to leave Indianapolis for Denver midseason.

"I'd like to figure it out as quick as I can because it is a pain in the butt," Logano said. "The quicker I can figure that all out, get it off my mind, it makes life a little easier."

But year-round free agency is a necessity in NASCAR because team owners must line up sponsors with the drivers six months to a year in advance. There's simply not enough time during the two-month break between the season finale and the next season's opener to get everything in place.

"I've been saying it all season long, I just have to keep focusing on this weekend and the weekends ahead," Logano said. "My No. 1 goal is still to get in the Chase. We still can do that."

Logano, 22, is handling his first real trip through free agency amazingly well as he returns this weekend to Pocono, where a second win would at least temporarily put him in the Chase as a wild card with five races left in the regular season.

His teammates, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, have noticed it. Team president J.D. Gibbs has noticed it, too.

"He has handled it well," Gibbs said. "We want him to retire at JGR. We're trying to figure out how to make all of that work."

Perhaps having the knowledge that JGR wants him to hang around -- at worst full-time in the Nationwide Series and part-time in the Sprint Cup Series -- takes some of the pressure off Logano. He knows he has somewhere to go next season, even if it's not ideal.

Not all drivers are so lucky.

But what's really impressive about Logano is the way he has become more valued by the organization and his teammates than ever.

"He's more in tune with what's going on at Gibbs Racing than I've ever seen him," Hamlin said. "Anytime I make an appearance in the shop he's there. He's there as much as those guys that work on those race cars.

"Honestly, the gap between myself, Kyle and Joey has closed dramatically. Joey is a legitimate teammate now."

Pocono is a great example. Hamlin has won there four times and has eight top-5s in 13 appearances. Yet until this year he was little interested in anything Logano or his team had to offer setup-wise.

"I have more trust in him now than I ever have," Hamlin said. "We're using information off of him. Normally, even last year, we would never do that."

Logano never felt disrespected before, but he never felt completely like a teammate, as he does now. That's one reason why Gibbs is working hard to retain the driver he put into Cup a year or two earlier than planned when Tony Stewart left after the 2008 season.

He has handled it well. We want him to retire at JGR. We're trying to figure out how to make all of that work.

-- J.D. Gibbs

"It definitely was different, for sure," Logano said of the way his teammates treated him before this year. "I don't feel like we're the third guy anymore. I feel like we are more of an equal out there.

"So that gives you more confidence in your meetings, and they listen to you more in the meetings. So we are able to help each other more."

It's all about respect for the driver who came into the sport with more expectations than most after Mark Martin called Logano a can't-miss star, "the real thing," when Logano was 15.

You could hear the satisfaction in Logano's voice after he is told of Hamlin's comments.

"I never heard him say that, so that's cool," he said. "This year, I have a lot more confidence in myself and my abilities in what we are doing out there.

"So obviously, you voice your opinion more when you know what you're doing a little bit more."

These things make Logano a more attractive free agent to other teams. Logano is keeping his options open, not ruling out talking to Penske Racing about the No. 22 or any other car.

This weekend is big. It may be Logano's best shot at a second win since he'll have the same car that won the pole, led the most laps and won the race in June. At 17th in points following a mistake at Indianapolis that potentially cost him a top-10, wins are what it's all about for the driver nicknamed "sliced bread."

That puts more pressure on him than athletes in other sports who don't have to worry about negotiations in-season. Not that performance isn't important in other sports. There's just not as great a sense of urgency as Logano has.

And for the record, Logano feels much more secure hitting a wall or another competitor inside his stock car than he would hitting a football player with pads.

"It still hurts, but not like it used to," Logano told McDonald of wrecking. "I'd rather do that than line up against you guys."